Historical Writers Blog Hop: Swegn Godwinson, an 11th Century Scandal

The story of the Godwinson brothers is a well-known one but there is one brother that is often overlooked as he doesn’t figure in the story of 1066 as Harold and Tostig do. Swegn. I have to confess that despite his shortcomings, I have a soft spot for this, the most colourful son of the House of Godwin, as I’m sure that had he been paid more attention to, or perhaps given the thing that was missing in his upbringing, whatever that was that made him the way he was, his life might have been as successful, if not more so than that of his brothers.

It was not surprising that in a family so prolific for producing male species, that there would be at least one who, if he was alive today, would have been up for an ASBOs, would have had several illegitimate children by the time he was nineteen, been involved with drugs and alcohol problems, and likely to have served time in prison. And the very fact that Swegn, the eldest, of the brood, was convinced he was not a Godwinson from an early age, would suggest that this lad would definitely have been diagnosed with an anti-social personality disorder at some point in his life.

Godwin, the father of this large gaggle of children, was in the service of the athelings, Aethelstan and Edmund Ironside, and went on to serve Cnut after Edmund’s untimely death. Godwin’s career went from landholding thegn to much greater things once he’d got his foot in Cnut’s royal door and his relatively low, but noble status, grew into an Earldom, with Cnut awarding him the lands of Wessex and Cnut’s brother-in-law’s sister, Gytha thrown into the package.

With his newfound status, a no-doubt puffed up Godwin must have strutted around with a spring in his step after his wife, Gytha, whose noble pedigree could not be denied, (she was the daughter of the chieftain Thorkil Sprakalegg and granddaughter of Harold Bluetooth) gave birth to their first son, Swegn. Little did the young couple realise that this charming little bundle of joy would turn out to be the bane of their lives.

I don’t know under which ill omen this black sheep, latter-day wild boy was born, but scandal would thence follow him throughout his life. How his parents, who obviously loved him, coped with the embarrassment of a son who continuously behaved badly one cannot imagine. But just as today, childhood experiences formulate a person’s character and I wonder what encounters in his early life Swegn might have had that shaped his personality the way it did.

Following him, were several other offspring, Edith, Harold, Tostig, Gyrth, Leofwin, Gunnhild, and Wulfnoth. There have been claims of another female and male, but I think that they have been made in error. Another male who joined the family for awhile was Beorn Estridson, who was the nephew of Cnut and son of Gytha’s brother, Ulf, who was married to Cnut’s sister Estrid. He may have been fostered into the family judging by the closeness between Harold and Beorn.

As one might expect there must have been a lot of chaos in the House of Godwin and there is a little story where Tostig and Harold were once chastised as boys, for fighting at the dinner table in front of the king. Tostig was said to have grabbed Harold by the hair. I wonder if Swegn is represented in this picture as the boy trying to break them up – perhaps after stirring up trouble!

Tostig and Harold brawling before the king.

Why it was Swegn that was to become the bad boy of the family is not recorded, and was possibly unusual for the first-born child. We know from events in the autumn of 1065 that Tostig, the fourth born child if we are to accept that their sister Edith was one of the top three, grew up resentful of his older brother Harold. But what were the aspects of Swegn’s upbringing that could have affected the eldest and heir of the Godwin household so badly that it created such a monster?

Maybe, to get a better picture of the man’s chatacter, we don’t need to look much further than where Swegn saw himself within the Godwin household. Possibly one of the most hurtful shameful things that Swegn could have done to Mama and Papa Godwin was to publicly accuse his mother of lying about his paternity. Sometime probably before 1047, he took it into his head to declare himself the son of Cnut which would have meant a few scandalous things. 1) That Gytha had been having an affair with Cnut whilst he had his other two wives, Emma and Ælfgifu on the go. 2) That she was married to Godwin at the time when Cnut fathered Swegn, and Godwin was not aware of this. 3) That she was given to Godwin by Cnut after the Danish king thought two women already were enough to handle. And 4) That Swegn hated his parents so much that he would do anything to embarrass them in public because he felt different from the others in his family.

Did his parents expect too much of him as the older son and then chastise him for his failings? Often we see this has been the case with many children growing up who had a sense of being outside the nucleus of their biological family. Could this have been the issue with Swegn? Or was it simply that he was the result of a well-kept secret that somehow wreaked havoc once it came to light by whatever means.

Of course Swegn may have convinced himself that his own suspicions that he was not a Godwinson were true, but his mother was not having it. She adamantly denied this on oath at an assembly of Wessex noble women she convened as Hemming’s Cartulary testifies.

One wonders about the breach that this must have caused within the family. Its interesting though that Godwin himself did not come out publicly to challenge this himself, though in no way should this be seen as the great earl acknowledging any truth in the claim. The old man might have felt he had enough to deal with without getting embroiled in an errant son’s lies against his own family. Behind the scenes though, it might have been quite different. Mercedes Rochelle in her novel The Sons of Godwin gives an excellent portrayal of the family dynamics in the household and treats Swegn’s character most sympathetically that one can really empathise with him and understand what shaped his sense of self and his outsider syndrome.

Whatever Swegn had hoped to gain, it obviously did not help his familial relations. I rather like to think that his mother gave him a right old slap around the face the next time she saw him. Nor did he evoke any loyalty with sister Edith, the queen, who failed to name him in her biography (the Vita Edwardi ) of the family, though she does allude to the rot within the family and this could plainly be him. Having said that, nor does she name her mother. I wonder why.

 In 1047 Swegn had hardly settled down in his office as Earl of lands in Mercia and Wessex, when he decided to forge an alliance with another like-minded soul, Gruffudd of Llewellyn of Gwynedd and Powis. Perhaps jealousy of his brother Harold and their cousin Beorn’s closeness or better treatment, was the reason, who knows. But he had made up his mind that he was going his own way. This Welsh man was a rival of Earl Leofric of Mercia whose family’s enmity with Gruffudd may have stemmed further back than the slaughter of Leofric’s brother Eadwin. This could point to some conflict between Swegn and Leofric’s family which prompted Swegn to join with Gruffudd to help him win a campaign in the south of Wales. Nonetheless it was indeed a goading that would not have been taken well by the House of Mercia.

But that was nothing. The most scandalous of Swegns doings were about to come and this next anecdote would be the one that would kickstart the beginning of Swegn’s demise.

On the way back from his trip, Swegn decided to stop by the Abbey of Leominster. He seems to have already known the Abbess and had taken a fancy to her. He ordered Lady Eadgifu be brought to him and he rode off with her, knowing full well that this was not going to go down well with not only the church but society in general. To kidnap a noble woman, and an abbess at that was not something that could just be brushed under the rush-mats. Although it is not clear in what capacity Swegn knew her, it is unlikely it was a random stop where he thought he’d take a look at the nuns and see which one took his fancy. Most agree he already knew her, that there may have been something between them once. Perhaps that was why Eadgifu was put in a nunnery well away from the rogue son of Godwin! One can imagine the look of horror on the faces of the girl’s kin when they knew their little darling and Swegn were hooking up.

Whatever the case, he went on to keep her for a year until the threat of excommunication issued by the archbishop of Canterbury forced him to give her up, although some sources indicate that he’d already had enough of her by that time anyway after she had given birth to his son, Hakon. Of course he was outlawed for such a deed and he went off to Bruges then Denmark to catch up with his Danish relatives whom he might have felt more at home with, seeing as he believed himself to be the son of Cnut.

But it seems that Swegn couldn’t behave himself in Denmark either and despite helping out his cousin, namesake King Swein, in his campaigns to keep Denmark from invasion by Norway, he seems to have caused some ‘crimes against the Danes’. One can imagine what he might have done there, but it’s a shame the records aren’t more specific.

So, by 1048 Swegn had forged quite a reputation for himself. The wanna be Dane is kicked out of Denmark, but with a crew of seven to eight ships, he sails into his home port of Bosham. You can imagine the hue and cry!
“Quick! Swegn is here! Lock up the women!”
“And the nuns!”
Godwin must have held his head in his hands and Gytha, resigned to the fact that there was going to be trouble, must have done what most mothers did in these times and put the equivalent of the eleventh century kettle on.

Swegn, knowing he’d burned his bridges in Denmark decided to see if he could enlist the support of his brothers. Beorn and Harold had been given a share of the renegade’s lands. He appeals to them to support him in his plea to the king to be reinstated. Beorn might have agreed at first but then Harold comes along and outright refuses, causing Beorn to abandon the idea. Harold must have been disgusted at his brother’s behaviour. If he’d been able to forgive his brother his transgressions, he might have agreed to give them back but there was clearly a dislike of his brother, and who could blame him?

Edward wasn’t very keen either. He orders him out of the country with four days to leave but Swegn is not for giving up and he sought out his cousin once again, perhaps relieved to find him without Harold breathing down his neck at Pevensey. This time Beorn agrees.

Here I want to rewind and shout at Beorn. “No! Stop! Don’t!” But who am I to get in the way of a good soap opera storyline? And let’s face it, it is a fabulous tale!

So silly Beorn, who never had a gut feeling in his life, takes just three men with him and agrees to go with Swegn to Bosham where he had left his ships. There must have been an argument between he and Swegn and perhaps Beorn then felt he could no longer agree to support him. The temperamental outlaw then had Beorn bound and dragged on to his ship. They sailed west to Dartmouth where Beorn was murdered and dumped/buried on shore.

Harold and Beorn must have been close as he made sure that Beorn’s body was rescued and taken to rest in the Old Minster in Winchester next to his uncle Cnut. When the king found out he was not happy as one can imagine. He and the whole army declared Swegn a nithing –basically a nefarious fellow and an outlaw which meant he could be killed on the spot. Even Swegn’s own men deserted him leaving him with no more than two ships. Fearing that he had completely stitched himself up, he decided to sail to Bruges where he was welcomed by Count Baldwin who, by his actions must have liked him for some reason.

So how does one come back from this? Surely now he will never be forgiven.

Dad Godwin, seems to have kept well out of Swegn’s affairs. I doubt he didn’t have an opinion on his eldest son’s deeds but whatever they were, no one has made any mention of them. At this stage, when Swegn made the accusation against his mother is not clear. It is not certain if it was before he went off the rails or during? I would imagine that this idea he was not Godwin’s son, but the son of that famous Danish king, Cnut, was a seed planted in the young Swegn’s mind, perhaps by someone who knew/suspected an affair between Cnut and the sister (Gytha) of his one time friend, Ulf. Whether or not Godwin was party to the rumour, or knew nothing about it until Swegn brought it to light many years later, it is not known. But I would imagine with or without the knowledge, this would have been a terrible hurtful blow for Godwin. But he seems to have forgiven his son all the same.

Ian Walker states that Godwin put pressure on Edward to return him to power although doesn’t name his source, but in 1050, the Bishop of Worcester met with him in Flanders, heard his confession and gave him absolution. He brings him back to England and supports Swegn to plead of the king his mercy and forgiveness. It does not seem unreasonable that this time Godwin, who was getting on a bit now, might well have also gone to Edward and begged for his son to be brought back. With this pressure put upon him from all sides, Edward caved in and I’m certain it was against his chagrin that Swegn is given his office and his lands back.

The bad boy of Wessex doesn’t appear to have learned his lesson. It was not long before he was building up resentment against the king’s nephew Ralph de Mantes and his Norman colony in Herefordshire where they were building castles in the manner of the French on the continent. He might also have been resentful toward Harold who was on good terms with Ralph. Harold was said to have been a Godfather to Ralph’s son, also named Harold.

Then the final nail in Swegn’s coffin was banged in.

In the Summer of 1051, the whole Godwin family were to come under scrutiny after they rebelled against King Edward. The incident in Dover that set king and earl against each other seems to have been engineered by the king’s French household members at least one of whom was Godwin’s nemesis and arch rival for the king’s counsel.

The king called upon Godwin to punish the town of Dover severely after his brother-in-law, Eustace of Boulogne was supposedly attacked by the townsmen on his way back home to France. Godwin refused and he, Harold and Swegn were called to account when they refused to harm the town. Swegn and Godwin had to give up hostages on the 8th of September and on the 21st of that same month, they were to meet with the king in London. Word came through that if Swegn turned up on the 21st, he would be in serious trouble because he had been outlawed again without even having seen the king. The whole family were worried as men began to desert them, not keen to be part of a civil war. None of them went to London on the 21st and the whole family were given just days to get out of England or be killed on site.

They split. Swegn offered Harold his ships that were waiting in Bristol and Harold took Leofwin with him and went off to Ireland to recruit mercenaries in Dublin. The rest of the family fled to Bruges in Flanders, Swegn going with them.

Swegn knew he had no more cards to play. No more lives to throw away and no more bridges to burn. The only way out of the mess he had made was to go on a pilgrimage – yes in medieval times, this is what the bad boys did – and he was said to have walked all the way to Jerusalem barefoot, only to die of the cold somewhere in Constantinople or thereabouts as he was returning home only ten days or so after the rest of his family had returned to power from their exile in a blaze of glory. Malmesbury though, has him attacked by Saracens.

Whatever the circumstances, he must have cut a sad figure, alone, barefoot, wearing the clothing of a pauper, shivering on a hill top with only a thin blanket for comfort as the freezing rain soaks him, completely stripped of his hubris and his arrogance. Of course this is my imagining, however it cannot be hard to visualise this sad reckoning and its hard not to feel a pang of regret for the once colourful, but self destructive son who came into this world with such promise, and left it completely bereft of his integrity.

He left behind one son, Hakon, who was still, at his death, a hostage in Normandy and who was said to have died at Hastings as a teenager not long after setting foot in his home with his uncle Harold in 1064.

Chapter Six: Death and Victory at Gate Fulford.

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Morcar and Edwin’s forces wait for the Vikings

The year of 1066 saw three major battles focusing on the struggle between the major contenders for the throne of England. The first and often forgotten battle was Gate Fulford, where brothers Morcar and Edwin, Earls of Northumbria and Mercia respectively, failed to hold off an invasion by the Norwegian Harald Hardrada and the disaffected Tostig Godwinson. How Tostig and Harald Sigurdsson, who earned himself the wonderful sobriquet The Hard to Counsel, ‘Hardrada’, got together has been the subject of speculation by most historians. But it seems that Tostig, having tried unsuccessfully to join in with William of Normandy’s plans, gathered a fleet of men whilst in Flanders, aided by his wife’s relation, Count Baldwin. We saw previously, that he had failed to invade England, and so he went north after being chased by brother Harold’s bigger fleet from Sandwich. He summered with his sworn blood brother, Malcolm, King of the Scots and from there he most likely made contact with, The Lightning Bolt of the North (he was also referred to in the sagas) Harald Sigurdsson.

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Norse Warrior

Harald’s fleet set sail during the summer and first arrived in Orkney to gather the local Viking forces of jarls, Paul, and Erland. He then travelled southwards to meet with Tostig and his smaller fleet; poor Tostig, always smaller, poorer, and unfulfilled in whatever it was he was trying to achieve. So Harald, his large fleet and great army, and Tostig’s – eh-hem – smaller gathering, ravaged the Yorkshire coast, destroying the town of Scarborough by throwing burning embers from a bonfire onto the thatched roofs of the houses. Not a nice way to win friends and influence people – especially if you’re reputation there had a zilch rating.

The next town to be met by their ‘warm’ arrival was Holderness whose citizens attempted to put up a resistance but were pretty much swatted like flies. From there, the combined forces of Harald and Tostig sailed into the Humber. They moored their ships, at least 300 for Harald, in the Ouse at Riccall and marched on to York, a major strategic stronghold and if Harald could take it, he would be in a strong position to conquer the north, piecemeal, using York as his base. It stands to reason that Tostig was looking for revenge against the citizens of York who’d given their support to the brothers Morcar and Edwin, ousting him from the earldom. Not sure there were many in York, who, when they learned what was coming, were looking forward to the party.

How Tostig persuaded Harald Sigurdsson to undertake this invasion is a matter for exploration. Harald and Swein of Denmark had ended their long war in 1064, and it’s possible that Tostig had gone to his cousin, Swein, before he had gone to Harald for help. If he did, as the later Harald Saga suggests, its most likely that Swein was loathe to leave his kingdom for fear of resumed Norwegian attacks from Harald. So that then left Tostig with only Harald Sigurdsson to turn to.

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If we are to understand what may have prompted Harald to invade England, we should look back further to eight years ago. The sources’ evidence for 1058, especially the Welsh and Irish Annales, are decidedly insistent that a Norwegian fleet ravaged the English kingdoms citing that their leader was Magnus, son of Harald, King of Norway. Later Domesday evidence shows that the west coast of Tostig’s Northumbrian lands were left wasted which could support evidence of a Viking harrying in that year as the annales claim. According to M & S Davies in their book about Gruffudd, Magnus’ presence amongst the allied forces of King Gruffudd and Alfgar of Mercia in 1058, would have meant something major was going down. The Irish Annales claim that Magnus was after the kingdom for himself and this cannot be ruled out, however his ambitions did not come to fruition but there is no evidence as to what happened that year other than that there seems to have been a major incident which the English, perhaps too embarrassed to admit, wanted to keep quiet about, in which there was most likely a huge pay off.

Tostig, would have been aware of the involvement of Magnus  in the ‘incident’ of 1058,  and may have viewed this as the prince acting on behalf of his father Harald, who was, at the time, battling with Swein over Denmark in an effort to expand his empire further. It would not be unreasonable to conject that Harald had lent his support to Magnus joining Gruffudd and Alfgar in the invasion of England. The agreement may have been that should they be successful, Harald would be invited to be king. So was MAgnus acting on Harald’s behalf? As things happened, the Norwegians accepted the money in exchange for leaving, which might have been what caused the embarrassed silence of the English chroniclers. So, if we follow this line of evidence, Tostig, knowing that Harald had once been interested in the English crown, turned his attention to the Norwegian king and the Thunderbolt jumped at the opportunity. How the magic duo were going to divide the kingdom up between them is not really known. However, conceivably, Harald would be king and Tostig probably dux Anglorum in his old lands in the north.

There is only one detailed source for this battle, Snorri Sturluson’s Saga of King Harald. It may not be 100% reliable, but its the best one. What we can be sure of is that, leaving their ships in Riccall, Harald and Tostig marched on York. Meanwhile, the young earls Edwin and Morcar, assembled their troops at Gate Fulford by the bank of the River Ouse. This was 2 miles from the city walls. They would have had plenty of time to gather intelligence about the movements of the Norse and send messages south to King Harold to ask for assistance. The Norwegians were a vast army and this was going to be no minor skirmish. This was obviously a serious attempt to invade and conquer.

But if there had been plenty of time to send word to Harold to come to their aid, why didn’t the northern earls wait before going out to engage the invaders? There may have been many reasons. Perhaps time, or maybe they were too young and impetuous, and felt a battle fought on the defensive would be doable. They may have wanted to assert their independence and strength, feeling that they were equipped to handle such an invasion. They were able to call on a large body of men who owed military service from their earldoms. There was also possibility that they may have been paranoid that Harold would strike a bargain with his brother Tostig and restore him to his former earldom which was now Morcar’s. If I had been in their shoes, I might have felt this way too, because Harold had a reputation for talking, rather than fighting. Despite the union between their sister Aldith and the king, the young earls may still have harboured suspicions toward Harold. It was because of Tostig that Alfgar, their father had been overlooked for the earldom of Northumbria and when Harold had returned from exile in 1052, Alfgar had been made to give back the Earldom of East Anglia to Harold. Then later, when Alfgar’s father, Earl Leofric, died, part of the lands of his earldom had been carved up and given to the Godwinsons. One can see why when over the years the Godwinsons had cultivated the notion that they were greedy, power hungry and self-serving. Bringing Tostig back into the fold would benefit Harold greatly to have him back ruling the north.

But whatever the reasons to not await Harold’s arrival, Morcar and Edwin failed to keep York from falling into the hands of the enemy, despite fighting bravely and putting up a great resistance. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us that the earls’ army was as large a force as they could muster. Snorri Sturluson insists it was an ‘immense’ army. Most likely it was at least 5,000 men plus. York, itself, could muster 1,000 men alone. Then there would have been the armies of the surrounding shires from Cheshire to the Scottish borders. The earls would have had their own huscarles, personal body guards numbering around 300 men or so each. This would have taken some mobilising and it shows how relaxed the attitude of the Vikings were, that allowed them the time to do it, and that was eventually to be their downfall. As they approached Gate Fulford, Harald’s scouts saw the formidable army lining up against them. ‘Gate’ is actually meant to mean a road through a ‘foul’ (muddy/swampy) ford.

King Harald’s Saga informs us that the Norse king’s standard, The Raven, was placed near the river at the back of his army which then stretched all the way up ‘where there was a deep and wide swamp, full of water’ no doubt the ‘foul’ or full ford. Moving toward the Norse army and using the stream that ran across the approaching road to strengthen their front, they manoeuvred in close formation as a shieldwall. Morcar led the vanguard and faced Tostig’s troops on the opposite side of the stream and Edwin’s men faced Hardrada nearer the Ouse.

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According to the Worcester Chronicle the English fought bravely at the onset, and that Tostig’s Norwegians were pushed back. Tostig’s troops were heavily engaged by Morcar’s men and hard-pressed. It was then that Hardrada lead his famous devastating charge to cut them down. With a blast of horns and war trumpets ringing through the air, Edwin’s huscarles are slaughtered and the English began to break up. Seeing that defeat was imminent, the levies broke and fled back to York. Having overwhelmed Edwin’s men, Hardrada now closed in to support Tostig on his right flank and Morcar’s men were trapped in the swamp. Many met their deaths there in those murky muddy waters, sucking their bodies into its ravenous depths. Florence of Worcester claims that there were less men killed on the battlefield that drowned than in the river.

According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle the day saw great slaughter on both sides but the Norsemen took possession of the field and the glory was theirs. Many corpses were bogged down in the river and the ’causeway of corpses’ was to be remembered long after the battle as men recalled using the them to clamber over to the other side of the stream and flee. Those that managed to flee, escaped to the relative safety of York with both the earls and their surviving men.

The young brothers were inexperienced and could have only have been aged between 17-19 at the time. They were the sons of Alfgar of Mercia, the rogue Earl who had allied himself on more than one occasion with the Welsh to oppose Harold Godwinson and King Edward. Alfgar had died around 1062 and Mercia had passed into his son, Edwin. Later, younger brother Morcar had been elected earl by the Northumbrians in an unprecedented move to oust Tostig Godwinson as their earl. Tostig had been Earl of Northumbria since 1055 but his harsh rule had made him unpopular and the men of the north revolted in 1065, demanding that they would have none other than Morcar as their leader, threatening to blaze a trail through the country if their demands were not met. This shows the respect that they must have had for Earl Leofric and Alfgar, that the men of Northumbria chose a son of Mercia to rule them.

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Morcar’s men try to get across the ford at Fulford

The devastating defeat must have been harrowing for the brothers in their first real engagement. They appear to have fought bravely and the battle might have gone either way. Harald Sigurdsson’s amazing, courageous charge brought the end to the battle. The Battle of Fulford Trust believe that the Vikings outnumbered the English and this may have contributed to Sigurdsson’s forces being able to roll up around them and crush them as reinforcements arrived. Peter Marren (2004) states in his book 1066 The Battles of York, Stamford Bridge and Hastings that he does not necessary agree with this theory that the English were outnumbered, and that the armies were comparable in size.

The lie of the land meant that Edwin and Morcar’s troops would have had difficulty in keeping track of each other. According to The Battle of Fulford Trust, if either of the English flanks gave way, the other side would not have known and this would have made them extremely vulnerable as they were to find out when Hardrada made his charge. Hardrada also had a much better view of the battle from some higher ground on the approach. From this higher vantage point, he would have been able to command his troops more effectively.

Considering the lack of experience and their youth, the young English brothers made a brave attempt to hold off the invaders and defend their city. They had obviously picked their spot with great care and thought, but their rawness in the field may have led to them disregarding such an important point as the lay of the land. Once their lines were broken, the Norwegians were able to break through and push them sideways without their respective flanks being able to pull back round together.
During the 1990’s excavations of bones thought to be those of Edwin’s and Morcar’s men were found with unhealed sword cuts to legs and arms, cracked or decapitated skulls and the typical injuries that are caused by arrows and other sharply tipped weapons such as spears. Many injuries were in the back and at least one had multiple deep cuts.
As violent and brutal as this battle was, it was just the first that the warriors of England were to endure that year. Edwin and Morcar and his surviving troops didn’t make it to Hastings. But there was another northern battle yet to come before Hastings took place. The Battle of Stamford Bridge. In that battle, the victorious Vikings were to meet a new foe, the army of Harold, the King of England, who was no untried boy.

Follow the battle lines below
http://www.battleoffulford.org.uk/battle_1.htm

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References and further reading
http://www.battleoffulford.org.uk/a_battle.htm

Marren P (2004) 1066 The Battles of York, Stamford Bridge & Hastings Pen and Sword books Ltd, Yorkshire.

Swanton M (1996) The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles The Orion Publishing Group Ltd, London.

Davies M & S Davies The Last King of Wales The History Press, Stroud.

I.W. Walker (2004) Harold the Last Anglo Saxon King Sutton Publishing Ltd, Gloucs.

Chapter Five: The Race For England is On!

By May, things were moving fast in England, just as they were in Normandy. King Harold must have known that his onetime friend, William of Normandy, would not take his oath breaking very lightly and would be making preparations to invade. One of the English spies sent over to Normandy, had been caught already, which proved that Harold was aware of William’s plans. He also knew that the northerners could be fickle toward the kings of Wessex, and with Tostig prowling around looking for support anywhere he could find it, and Harald Sigurdson, (Hardrada), King of Norway, ready to renew his claim to England, Harold knew he needed the north onside. Many of them were Anglo-Danish, and may have welcomed a Scandinavian ruler, as they had done in the earlier part of the 11thc, with Sweyn and Cnut. According to the Anglo Saxon chronicle, Harold returned to Westminster from York for Easter, April 16th. This means he was in the north sometime in February or March. Most historians believe that this was the time when he married Aldith (Ealdgyth/Eadgyth) of Mercia, sister of the northern earls, Morcar and Edwin, and onetime Queen of Wales. Legend has it that Harold ‘rescued’ her from Gruffudd’s clutches. Probably romantic nonsense, just like Edith Swanneck, as reported by one website about Harold, identifying his body by the words tattooed on his chest, ‘Edith and England’. I wonder what the new Mrs G must have made of that when she saw her new husband’s tats for the first time.

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The Chronicles lack information regarding Harold’s union with Aldith, which seems to be par for the course with the monkish writers of the day. They were very sparing in their writings. Information Governance must have been very tight in those days; however, it is likely that Harold brought Aldith with him back to Westminster from York, to present to his council as his new queen. Chroniclers, William of Jumièges and Walter Map, both describe her as being very beautiful. Florence of Worcester confirms that she was wife on Harold II. At the time of Harold’s death, she was not known to possess much wealth and was recorded, as it is thought, having owned some land in Binley, Warwickshire. It is not known if she had land in Wales, having been the wife of Gruffudd, for there is no evidence to be found of this. After Harold’s death, she disappears from history, into the mists of time.

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Aldith and Gruffudd

There was never a coronation for Aldith, probably because Harold had his hands full, organising his defences. Soon after the hairy star had lit up the land like a massive boil on the sky’s face for a week, Tostig sailed to the Isle of Wight with his fleet from Flanders, and was given provisions and money by the leading men there. Tostig, having been exiled from England after not accepting his deposition as Earl of Northumbria in favour of Morcar, the son of Alfgar of Mercia, took some ships and fled with his family and some loyal thegns to his father-in-law in Flanders. It is said that he had tried to ally himself with William of Normandy, but evidence seems to be sketchy on this point. In any case it was his father-in-law, Count Baldwin who aided him with men and ships. He raided the ships along the English coast to Sandwich but when Harold mobilised his own great fleet, Tostig had to turn tail and row! He sailed further north and tried to entice his brother Gyrth to join him at a stop in East Anglia, but this was unsuccessful. so he raided Norfolk and Lincoln and went on to Scotland to stay with his great friend. King Malcolm.

viking-ship
Tostig sails to the ISle of Wight

Harold set to gathering his own fleet, ‘a greater raiding ship army and also a greater raiding land army, the like of which no other king in the land, had done before’ according to the D Chronicle of the ASC. And this was because, Harold had heard that – never mind (to coin a phrase) that ‘Winter was Coming’, or Tostig even, in 1066 it was William who was coming.

hastings

Its not hard to imagine some amongst Harold’s camp scoffing at the likelihood that William could undertake such a huge mission; to bring an army big enough to conquer and vanquish the English, creating a fleet big enough to carry an army of thousands. Its also not hard to visualise Harold turning to the doubting Thomases. and saying in a voice serious enough to make them believe,

“I have seen this duke in action. I have seen his warfare, his grit and his determination. That he has travailed throughout his life, and is still alive is a miracle in itself. He, and his army, will come, I doubt this not; aye, and he will bring his warhorses too. Such is his resolve and resilience.”

So what started all this? The prologue to my book Sons of the Wolf  gives us a bit if an insight:

In the autumn of 1052, two young boys were stolen away from all they had ever known and set on a journey to a place where they would remain hostage for many years. Wulfnoth and his nephew Hakon, the sons of Godwin and Swegn Godwinson, were not to see a familiar comforting face for many years. They were whisked away across the sea, to the court of Normandy, by Robert Champart, the former Archbishop of Cantwarabyrig. Fleeing the return of his nemesis, Godwin, as he stormed back from exile, Champart knew the part he had played in Godwin’s downfall, meant that his life was in danger. If he stayed, it would be at his peril, for Godwin’s revenge would be devastating. Some say the boys were meant as hostages for William, the bastard-born Duke of Normandy, sent with King Edward’s consent as surety that he would name William as his heir. Others say he took the boys out of hatred for Godwin, the powerful Earl of Wessex. And it was also said that by performing this cruel act, Champart was killing more than one bird with one stone. Whatever the motive, and Champart most likely had more than one, this ill-fated abduction was to be the start of a thread that would eventually spin the downfall of a powerful dynasty.
Onginnen þa spinnestran…
(Let the spinners begin…)

And what was to happen, years later, when, in the autumn of 1064, Harold  sailed to William’s court, was to be the catalyst that would propel England into war with the Normans and their French allies. And later, in 1065, the fates were forced to spin another thread when Harold, doing his best to mediate in a dispute between Tostig, the king and the northern thegns, was forced to support his brother’s exile. This latter event was to bring the mighty ‘Hardrada’ to England’s shores, thus adding another dimension to Harold’s eventual downfall, despite his victory over the Northmen at Stamford Bridge.

Primary sources

The Anglo Saxon Chronicle

The Bayeux Tapestry

William de Jumieges.

Walter Map

Florence of Worcester

Further Reading 

Bridgeford A. (2004) 1066: The Hidden history of the Bayeux Tapestry Harper Perennial, Suffolk.

Swanton M. (2000)  The Anglo Saxon Chronicles (new ed) Phoenix Press, Great Britain.

Walker I (2004) Harold, the Last Anglo Saxon King (paperback edition) Sutton Publishing LTD, Gloucs.